The 2018 midterm election is already shaping up to be one of the most interesting and potentially monumental in recent memory–and that is saying a lot given the 2016 election that handed Trump the U.S. presidency. Already, all eyes are on Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District, where Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, a Republican, will defend his seat against progressive Democratic candidate Randy Bryce. Bryce was recently endorsed by End Citizens United, the political action committee whose primary goal is to pass a constitutional amendment overturning the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court decision that many say has completely shifted power over to corporations and special interests.
Although Randy Bryce is running for the 1st Congressional District seat that is currently held by Paul Ryan, his efforts and their outcome will affect far more than the Wisconsin residents who reside there. Ryan has long been one of the most vocal opponents of the amendment to overturn Citizens United, and many would argue that he has been one of the top beneficiaries of the decision. By supporting Bruce, End Citizens United hopes to give him the resources that he needs to pull off an admittedly unlikely victory against the career politician, who first won the seat in 1999 during a special election.
The two candidates couldn’t be more different, with Ryan projecting the image of the clean-cut conservative American and Bryce, an Army veteran, union official and cancer survivor, representing blue-collar interests. In the spring, Bryce’s campaign released an ad online that quickly went viral, and it was the official start of his run against Ryan. Thanks to that video, Bryce amassed a huge following on Twitter and other social media platforms. Nicknamed the Iron Stache thanks to his distinctive handlebar mustache, Bryce even uses the handle @IronStache on Twitter.
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Given that Paul Ryan has been such an opponent of campaign finance reform, it makes sense the End Citizens United wants him out of office. In turn, it makes sense that ECU has thrown its support behind Bryce. The grassroots PAC has only endorsed two other candidates so far, and it has plenty of resources to send their way. While ECU raised around $25 million in 2016, the organization expects to smash that figure in 2018. Over just three months in early 2017, ECU raised more than $4 million. The group expects to raise more than $35 million in time for the 2018 midterms. ECU’s clout is growing too, as more than 40,000 of the more than 100,000 donors so far this year donated for the first time.
There’s a lot of confusion out there about Citizens United and what it represents. End Citizens United took its name in reference to its goal, which is to overturn the 2010 Supreme Court decision that is known as Citizens United vs. FEC. However, Citizens United refers to more than that pivotal case but also to the political action committee that started it all. Indeed, Citizens United, which was founded in 1988 and largely funded by the Koch Brothers, has goals that include promoting the interests of corporations and of supporting socially conservative causes and candidates.
In its efforts to support such candidates during the 2008 election, Citizens United attempted to air a TV commercial that was highly critical of Hillary Rodham Clinton. However, the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which is also known as the McCain-Feingold Act, prohibited corporations and unions from paying for media that specifically mentions any candidates immediately prior to an election, and this rule made it impossible for the ad to air.
As a result, Citizens United decided to challenge the law by suing the Federal Election Commission, or FEC, in 2009. The case wound its way through the lower courts until the Supreme Court finally agreed to hear it on appeal. To the surprise and dismay of many, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Citizens United by a 5-4 vote. The court stated that the First Amendment actually protects free speech itself–not an individual’s freedom of speech–and therefore protects the free speech of unions and corporations too. Indeed, this is where the whole “corporations are people” thing originated because that is essentially what the Supreme Court ruled.
In its decision, the Supreme Court ruled that restricting independent political spending was akin to squelching First Amendment freedom of speech rights. It also ruled that placing spending limits like these unfairly prevents information from getting to the public. However, the dissenting opinion noted that in reality, eliminating those limits gives far too much power to special interests, so individual voices are far less likely to be heard. Randy Bryce has called the Citizens United ruling “toxic” to democracy, and he is far from alone. Many have even said that democracy in the United States essentially died the day that the court ruled in favor of Citizens United.
As exciting as ECU’s endorsement surely is for the Bryce campaign, the candidate undoubtedly knows that he faces an uphill battle. After all, Paul Ryan handily won reelection in 2016 with more than 65 percent of the vote. To make matters worse, the Republican has already amassed a huge fortune to support his reelection bid. He went into the cycle with more than $11 million, and his campaign has reportedly raised more than $6.3 million so far for 2018. With all of that being said, a recent poll shows that he holds only a nine-point lead if the election was held today–and more than 17 percent of respondents remain undecided.
Does Randy Bryce stand a chance against the likes of Paul Ryan? With support from End Citizens United, he just might. Upon endorsing the candidate, the ECU activated its more than 300,000 donors across the country, and it is connecting the campaign with more than 5,000 ECU members in the 1st Congressional District. During this cycle so far, ECU has raised around $2 million, with the average donation totaling just $14. This, of course, echoes Bryce’s own efforts. The candidate has raised more than $353,000 with more than 82 percent of donations coming from small independent contributions of $200 or less.
Randy Bryce has already succeeded in shaming Paul Ryan for not holding town hall meetings. The candidate held one a few months ago that was clearly largely staged. The fact that the Speaker is responding like this suggests that he is actually at least somewhat worried about his odds in 2018. End Citizens United will continue to throw its support behind Bryce, and supporters are urged to volunteer to assist the organization in realizing its goals for 2018 and beyond, which include overturning Citizens United.